Officials with the New Mexico Department of Information Technology admitted on Monday that the state had not done enough to prepare for a large expansion in broadband access, especially across tribal lands.
It is also unclear how the state will finance a project that is expected to cost more than $ 1 billion over several years.
Acting Secretary of Information Technology Raja Sambandam; project director of the Gar Clarke agency; and Matt Schmit, the incoming broadband adviser for the new state office for broadband access and expansion, on Monday presented an overview of broadband initiatives to the legislative revenue subcommittee of the transport infrastructure.
Lawmakers on the panel expressed concern over the paucity of details – including the number of state residents unable to connect to the internet – and the lack of progress in working with tribes to set up priority agreements before an injection of federal funds for the project.
âYou don’t have a plan,â Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, told Sambandam, Schmit and Clarke.
States are eligible for up to $ 100 million US federal bailout law to boost Internet connectivity.
Senator Bill Tallman D-Albuquerque said the $ 100 million in federal aid would not go very far. During another recent legislative hearing, he said, lawmakers learned that it could cost at least $ 1.5 billion over several years to get the program fully operational.
Schmit, asked earlier this month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to develop a three-year broadband expansion plan, agreed the statewide cost “will likely exceed $ 1 billion.” .
Schmit, who will not take up his new post until early December, said his office is expected to present a framework for the broadband plan at the next ordinary legislative session, which begins in mid-January. The deadline for using federal pandemic aid for broadband work is 2026, he added.
“This is not a solution that we can get overnight,” he said.
New Mexico lawmakers keen to improve broadband access – an issue highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as closures have forced students and workers to turn to remote platforms – provided $ 100 million for broadband efforts and an additional $ 7 million in capital during the 2020 Ordinary Legislative Session. They also created a new broadband office to centralize initiatives that were previously managed by multiple state agencies.
A summer 2020 report from the Legislative Finance Committee estimated that between 13% and 20% of New Mexico’s 200,000 homes and businesses did not have broadband access at the time. An analysis from broadnow.com ranked the state 42nd – behind neighboring Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Utah – in connectivity.
The state has installed hundreds of Internet access “hot spots”, Clarke told lawmakers on Monday, but said it was not an ideal way to provide the service: “It’s not the way to teach kids if they have to cross the parking lot and do their homework. “
He and his colleagues spoke of efforts to use funds recently approved by the legislature and federal government to better connect libraries, public schools and tribal facilities.
Several lawmakers have expressed concerns about right-of-way agreements with tribes.
âHave you had a real discussion with the Navajo Nation about how we need to resolve the right-of-way issues? Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales asked. “It’s a big, big deal.”
Clarke said the agencies must engage in “serious discussion” with all tribal communities on the issue.
âYou are absolutely right,â he said. “We haven’t done enough.”
Representative Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, the chair of the subcommittee, said the agencies had a “heavyweight” ahead of them.
âBroadband connectivity is a human right,â she added.
After the hearing, Tallman said “it’s hard to understand” what the state is doing to improve broadband access.
“It is also difficult to get an idea of ââhow much money we have already committed and how much is still available thanks to grant applications that have not yet been finalized,” he said.